Leading a double life

Fearless Foulsbane_480p

Its tagline claims it’s the largest 3D virtual site in the world, but does Second Life come at a price for its users who dip in and out of the real world? Simon Evans, a PhD candidate in LSE’s Department of Social Psychology, has been researching this question for five years.

As you read this, 50,000 people around the globe are leading double lives. They’re busy socialising, buying property, shopping and exploring new hobbies, but in a separate world.

Simon Evans_113x148LSE PhD student Simon Evans (left) belongs to this world. As one of 70 million registered users of Second Life, the former advertising media strategist straddles two existences – the physical and the virtual.

In his real life he is completing a thesis on how the experience of moving between two different worlds shapes a person’s identity. In his virtual life he slips into the role of Fearless Foulsbane, his avatar, who has been his alter ego since 2007 when he first signed on to Second Life.

For those unfamiliar with Second Life, users (also called residents) create virtual representations of themselves called avatars and are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. The 3D platform even has its own virtual currency, the Linden Dollar, which is interchangeable with real world currency.

Its users confound traditional stereotypes, spanning all age and socio-economic groups and cultures, albeit dominated by Americans and Europeans.

Men appear to make up the bulk of users but switching sex via avatars is common on Second Life for a whole range of complex reasons, including a desire to explore the experiences of a different gender. 

In Simon’s case, his Fearless avatar bears some physical and personality similarities to his real self: both are researchers, wear glasses, have facial hair and a similar taste in clothes. But Fearless gives Simon the chance to step outside his day-to-day existence. Fearless goes nightclubbing, he attended parties to celebrate Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, as well as Victorian tea parties hosted by robots, flew in the air, donned an Iron Man suit and even rode a cat.

“He’s given me the chance to try out many things that I have not done in real life,” Simon adds.

It has also expanded his social circle (meeting other avatars), allowed him to look at the world in a different way and learn more about other societies.

“I have taken experiences from Second Life and used them to benefit me in the real world,” Simon says.

But there are downsides.

It is anonymous and therefore carries risks. People have been stalked, deceived and lost money, often through bad property deals using the Linden Dollar. It can also be addictive and have a negative impact on relationships in the real world.

“In fairness, this is no different to other social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and dating sites which people spend hours on,” Simon adds.

But what is the impact on a person’s identity? Do people develop multiple personalities switching between the virtual and real worlds?

Simon’s research shows not.

In the course of dozens of interviews with Second Life users over five years, the finding was conclusive: people remain grounded in the real world, despite experimenting with different appearances, behaviours and personalities.

“One user described their avatar as being like a prosthetic – part of you but separate.

“People are so adept at using digital technologies now that they can seamlessly step from the virtual world to the real world without difficulty. They play with identity but they reach equilibrium. This finding actually contradicts claims that technology is taking over people’s lives. My research showed that while Second Life can be addictive, ultimately users switch off the computer and real life takes over.”

Additional notes

Simon Evans is a postdoctoral candidate in the Department of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is due to complete his PhD thesis, “Virtual Selves in Virtual Worlds,” in December 2015 under the supervision of Professor Saadi Lahlou. He also has an MSc from LSE.

Uploaded November 2015